Formula 1 Insight

The Language of F1

One of the things we take for granted when watching F1 is that all the drivers speak English. It is the language of F1 for historical reasons but it still surprises me that even new arrivals from feeder formulae have such a good grasp of what, for them, may be a very difficult language to learn. I know, for instance, that the Japanese struggle when it comes to learning English, so different are the two languages.

Heidfeld and Kubica
A German and a Pole field the questions

We may smile at the repeated phrases, stilted delivery and odd sentence construction of many of the drivers, but the fact is that these guys are doing far better than most of us would if forced to learn Finnish, for instance. The truth is that all of them, without exception, demonstrate considerable linguistic skill every time they appear in the interview room or are waylaid by a bunch of eager fans.

The English are known for their reluctance to learn other languages and cover their linguistic limitations with such excuses as "if I repeat it often enough, they will understand" or "I don't need to learn another language, they all speak English." The second excuse is true, but only because English is taught in almost all foreign countries, whereas the second language in British schools could be French, German or Spanish. It does not help, either, that Latin was dropped from the curriculum ages ago but that is another rant that I won't begin here.

So I admire the drivers for their mastery of English - and it should be described as mastery, when we consider that they are barraged with quickfire questions from interviewers who think nothing of constructing long rambles with a question buried in the middle. The wonder is that the drivers so rarely fail to understand, not that their answers are deliberately devoid of information that the competition might find useful. They know the company line and tread it quite ably.

Of course, the drivers get plenty of practice in English, with almost all of the teams having so many British team members and the language being the common tongue as a result. But this may not always be true. Toyota have based their team in Cologne, while BMW Sauber have lived in the German-speaking part of Switzerland for a long time. How long can it be before the German speakers outnumber British team members and the language culture changes as a result?

There can be no doubt that British influence in F1 is waning. The numerical superiority of Brits in the teams is the result of decades of British supremacy in racing but this is no longer true. None of the engines now in use in F1 are built by British companies and there is no prospect of new British engine builders in the future. As expertise in the construction of chassis and suspension spreads to Germany, Italy and Japan, these countries will supply more of the experts within the teams.

There may even come a time when it no longer makes sense for so many of the teams to be based in England. That, too, is an historical thing and there may come a time when it makes more sense for teams to be close to their manufacturer parents.

The one thing that English has going for it in terms of being the language of F1 for the future is the internet. Thanks to its being the invention and development of our cousins across the water, American English is the language of the net and is likely to remain so. And, as time goes on, F1 becomes more internet aware and so becomes subject to its imperatives.

For the moment, therefore, we can assume that F1 will continue to speak in English - and those who are native English speakers should be grateful and appreciate how this enables them to avoid the work of translation. I myself have been irritated at times by the constant repetition of the phrase "for sure" in the drivers' statements, but may I never forget that I have no right to voice any criticisms while my own language skills are as limited as they are.


Steven Roy
I think English will always be the common language. German influence may be growing but teams need people to move between teams and they can only do that if there is one language.

Ferrari may communicate in English but they will never communicate in German. Equally BMW will never speak Italian. Although to be fair from what I know of Schweiz Deutsche it would be a major achievement to get Hinwil to communicate in German. I know when Frentzen went there he had real problems understanding the conversations and apparently his German is quite good.

I think one of the mistakes Bernie made was homogenising the on screen graphics. There used to be something exotic as a kid to see 'noch 15 runde' appear on the screen. '15 more laps' just isn't the same. It may not have been much but the occasional graphic popping up on the screen reminded you of where the race was taking place and if nothing else taught us all half a dozen words of several languages. But then the world was a far bigger place then. I couldn't dial up data from a space ship by pressing a couple of buttons then.

I think it is safe to assume that English will be the ligua franca of F1 for the foreseeable future. Or at least until the Chinese take over.
Date Added: 28/03/2008

I agree that English will remain the language of F1 for the foreseeable future, Steven - and we should make hay while the sun shines for that very reason. It's good to remember occasionally that the drivers are now international stars and speaking English another of their skills that is rarely noticed, however.

Some of them are multi-lingual, especially those who have been associated with Ferrari, and that achievement really humbles me. I have a basic knowledge of French and smatterings of German and Afrikaans (which means I can understand a bit of Dutch too), but these guys are managing to be quite fluent. They earn their money in more ways than we realize.
Date Added: 28/03/2008

You know,,, It's great to find an englishman making such statemens, you know... For all those who doesn't have english as their natural language it's really difficult to be sure that what you are trying to say it's spoken correctly and meaningful.... you know. Thanks for this post, you know, cause it made me feel better. you know you know
Date Added: 28/03/2008

I know, Architrion, I know... ;)

And thank you for the humour in your response - it's clear that you have an excellent grasp of English and gave me a good laugh too!
Date Added: 28/03/2008

John Beamer
This is off topic but I think all forms of english should be banned apart from the Queen's English. Tally-ho :-)
Date Added: 28/03/2008

I rather like the huge diversity of English, even from one region to another in Britain, John. And, of course, I pride myself in being fluent in both English and American variants. ;)
Date Added: 28/03/2008

John Beamer
On a serious note many non-English native speakers have better verbal construction than many English (UK) people do ...
Date Added: 28/03/2008

True, John. But we carn' orl speak proper like wot I do, innit?
Date Added: 28/03/2008

Dan M
I always found it intresting that all drivers spoke english, I wasnt sure if it was a requirement to get a Super Licence (or whatever it is called).

I think this further proves that drivers that make it to F1 deserve to be there. There ability to pick up foriegn languages shows they are able to learn and adapt quickly, two important qualities in F1 (Scott Speed was even using the metric system from living in Austria, reason enough to be back in F1!).

My favorite moment was last year when Massa and Alonso were bickering back and forth in Italian, I guess they figured the the audience would be less likely to understand..... I remember reading the forums and everyone was trying to desypher the conversation.

Date Added: 28/03/2008

Kathryn S
Has no one mentioned to Kimi that the word is "think" not "thinkso" as in, "I thinkso that our pace is good this weekend."

I laughed at "if I repeat it often enough, they will understand"...but, to me, even better and more amusing is, if I say it loudly enough they will understand.

Clive...I lived for three years in England and now speak some"real" English as well as my American.

Date Added: 28/03/2008

It's not a requirement for a Super License, as far as I'm aware, Dan, but no doubt the drivers find it necessary to be able to understand and talk English even before they get to F1 - it tends to be the common language amongst teams in the lower formulae too. It certainly shows how quickly young drivers have to learn, however.

I can remember that wild scramble to decipher the Alonso/Massa argument - we weren't even sure that it was Italian to begin with! A glimpse into F1 if English were not the chosen language perhaps!
Date Added: 28/03/2008

To be honest, I hadn't noticed "thinkso" yet, Kathryn - maybe I can't hear it through the Kimi mumble. But the matter of shouting loudly enough to be understood I know very well and can remember as a child being embarrassed by my father's firm belief in it. He could get very loud when confronted with confused foreigners!

As for knowing some "real" English, isn't it good to be bi-lingual? ;)
Date Added: 28/03/2008

Steven Roy
Clive you have to be kidding. Kimi's thinkso is the outstanding linguistic anomaly in F1. He seems to be able to get it into every sentence at least once. I expect he will bring out a thinkso brand any thime now.

For sure I thinkso we have a competitive car and I thinkso we can win the world championship.
Date Added: 28/03/2008

Never noticed it, Steven. Maybe I'm just too used to Kimispeak now. And now, of course, it'll be the only thing I ever hear him say... :D
Date Added: 28/03/2008

Alianora La Canta
Super Licenses do not require any specific language to be spoken, though since all FIA documents are written in English and French in the first instance, it would be helpful to anyone wanting to get into F1 to know one or other of these languages, even if, for instance, all teams spoke only German.

I'm doing AS Spanish at the moment* (first half of an A-Level) and I still can't speak it very well spontaneously. Even Kimi, with his "thinkso", would have no trouble passing AS-Level English if it were assessed using the same criteria as Spanish. (However, I am aware that AS English also requires the ability to speak in a persuasive manner, which is just being over-picky in my book).

As for the Alonso/Massa argument, I had to look on the internet to find out what was being said. When I hear speech above a certain volume, I no longer hear the words, only the tones and pitches. So the whole scene looked more reminiscent of a bad Pop Idol duet than anything else! It is perhaps a good thing that I don't have to deal with inflexible alternate-language speakers on a regular basis...

* - I've also done some study of French and Japanese, but these languages are even harder for me than Spanish!
Date Added: 29/03/2008

Pink Peril
One thing you didn't mention Clive, was not only being able to speak & understand English extremely well, but the ability to do it over the radio (and as a native English speaker even I find it hard to hear those radio transmissions over the noise of the engine) but also the ability to understand everyone elses accent !

It's one thing for your ear to be attuned to a British accent speaking English - another thing entirely to understand a German speakers accent.

So for sure, I won't complain about drivers post race conference offerings anymore !
Date Added: 30/03/2008

Björn Svensson
There's one question that really have caught my interest during the last 10 years or so.

Here in Sweden theres more and more english mixed into the language, and some have even begun to talk "swenglish" so to say. And considering the wildfire of english traveling around the world, i actually fear that the contamination of languages are going to get even worse.

That description of whats happening might sound odd to some, but i for one really want to keep my language as clear as possible from foreign influence. All languages based on the roman alphabet have between A to Z to chose from when they want to make up new words, and here we even have Å, Ä and Ö. So i can't se why it's necessary to keep borrowing words from abroad.

And considering what you wrote, i think it is inevitable that at the moment, English is the prefered language. But i am also convinced that this fack will change over time. Even though it may be a thought thats really tough to think, it could just as well be that we will all speak Chinese or Arab languages in the future. English might be big in Europe and the U.S.A. but in the south of America theres more usual to speak Spanish. And since the influence from Asia is bound to increase due to the incredible expansion and modernisation that they are going through, i think that we might have to learn to read Chinese or maybe Indian sometimes in the future.

Just playing with the thought is fun, and trying to look forward and predict how things are going to be, can even be a little frightening. I sincirely hope that we all will be able to keep our own languages, but ofcourse there have to be a universal language to use in official meetings and events, and i can't se that that language are going to change in the near future. I think that the teams, drivers and journalists around F1 is going to speak English even a hundred years from now. The English language are so thoroughly inbedded in the fundamental functions in this world that theres no way it is going to change anytime soon.
Date Added: 31/03/2008

Alianora La Canta
Still, even if Spanish comes to dominate F1, the English-speakers will still understand a surprising amount of it - Spanish has borrowed nearly all of its technological terms directly from English without modification ("Hago un comentario en un blog" is "I make a comment on a blog"), and if you know the roots of English, a lot of the other words are pretty easy to figure out. It's the language's grammatical logic that takes the learning.

Oh, and "Indian" is several dozen languages, so if we do get dominated by the Indo-Chinese revolution (which on certain readings of the future is completely plausible), there'll still need to be a common language, which would probably be English through sheer inertia...
Date Added: 31/03/2008

You're right, Peril - those pit to car radios are difficult to understand, regardless of what language you speak! Just one more skill acquired by the drivers...
Date Added: 31/03/2008

I agree that nothing will change for many years yet, Björn, but think that the English speakers should show a little more gratitude for that fact.

As for the effect of one language on another, that is one reason why English has proved so enduring - it freely borrows and steals words from other languages so that now it is a chaotic mix of all sorts. This makes it very flexible and suite to practical matters.
Date Added: 31/03/2008

English remains the language for official transactions in India, Alianora, probably because there are so many Indian tongues competing for the honour. So it does kinda give English a head start even as the sport spreads into Asia.
Date Added: 31/03/2008


“Você é uma caixinha de surpresas”... This expression in Brasil means: “you are a little box full of surprises” (ok, I know there’s something wrong with my translation and I hope you have a similar expression in English!). This kind of post is what brings me here every single day to read this blog.

As Archtrion said, is fantastic that you put yourself to think beyond the ordinary subjects of the Formula 1 universe. And yes, as him, it made me feel better.

“For sure”, Massa is the pole position using this phrase that irritates me as well, but Massa is one of them whose speak four languages (Spanish, Italian, English [now I’m not sure!] and Portuguese!)

But we can go beyond the drivers and think about the new audiences, (as me) who don’t have English as natural born language. Here, in Brasil, we don’t have a good main stream Formula 1 media and even a blog community that think seriously about Formula 1. Yes, we have some good drivers, but technically, we have one of the worst Formula 1 media in the world. As a result, I must to come here and in other sites and blogs (all in English!) to keep me well informed. I´m no SURE, Clive, but I think you have some audience that can’t express yourself in English.

As you perceives, my English language skills are very limited in the comments area, and sometimes read expressions as “sand bagging” give me a real hard work to understand at the first view, but this difficult is what makes me fell improving my skills language. Anyway, I love English and sometimes I read some Emily Dickinson verses to my child who loves the sounds… “He ate and drank the precious words, His spirit grew robust; He knew no more that he was poor, Nor that his frame was dust…”


You said: “There can be no doubt that British influence in F1 is waning. The numerical superiority of Brits in the teams is the result of decades of British supremacy in racing…”

Do you know where (book or site) can I find information about this matter?

As we say here in Brasil, abraços (hugs), Clive and obrigado (thanks)!

Date Added: 31/03/2008

Alianora La Canta
The usual way of expressing that thought in English is "full of surprises", though I have seen "a box full of surprises" by English speakers as well. I will say now that your English is a lot better than my secondary languages, Becken.

Unfortunately I don't know any Portuguese as such, but maybe it would be an idea to start writing some stuff in Spanish as well as English in my blog. There's a thought...

As to the "English influence is waning" thing, the press doesn't appear to have quite caught up with current changes. However, I can tell you that the balance of points-scoring teams in the following years was:

1958: 4 British (66.67%), 2 Italian (33.33%)
1968: 5 British (50%), 2 French (20%), 1 Italian (10%), 1 Japanese (10%), 1 New Zealand (10%)
1978: 10 British (71.42%), 2 French (14.28%), 1 American (7.14%), 1 Italian (7.14%)
1988: 6 British (60%), 3 Italian (30%), 1 German (10%),
1998: 4 British (44.44%), 3 Italian (33.33%), 1 French (11.11%), 1 Swiss (11.11%), 1 Irish (11.11%)
2008*: 3 Japanese (27.27%), 2 British (18.18%), 2 Austrian (18.18%), 2 German (18.18%), 1 Indian (9.09%), 1 Italian (9.09%)

* - for this one I included all teams in my count, as we've only had two races so far...
Date Added: 31/03/2008

Your English is far better than my Portuguese, Becken, and it is a small thing to recognise my good fortune in being a native speaker of the lingua franca of the moment. As Alianora's statistics point out, it really is only a matter of the moment for change continues and what is true today may not be so tomorrow.

I don't know if anyone has ever made study of such things or written a book about it - I speak from personal observation only. Alianora's statistics certainly appear to support my theory, at least.
Date Added: 31/03/2008

RSS feed icon RSS comments feed

Back to the main blog

Have your say

You may use some HTML in comments. For bold text use <strong></strong> and for italic text use <em></em>. If you know what you're doing feel free to use more complex mark-up but please no deprecated tags, break tags or JavaScript.

Enter the code shown above:

Name *

Comment *

Email *


Copyright disclaimers XHTML 1.0 CCS2 RSS feed Icon